Like many things, character motivations can make or break a story. When motivations fall flat it can be hard to connect to characters or understand their actions. Weak motivations can cause issues with other aspects, like plot and stakes. Let’s discuss issues to avoid and how to make sure your character has strong and clear motivations.
First off, when a character doesn’t know why they are doing something my interest wanes especially if this happens in the first chapter when the stakes are being set up. If a character doesn’t know, it doesn’t tell me about them or why I should care. In fact, it makes their actions feel unimportant. It’s often a big red flag when a character even thinks “I don’t know why” in regards to their actions and motivations. If they don’t understand themselves, the readers can’t understand. This makes their actions feel forced for the sake of plot. Motivations help develop characters and their role in the story. Forcing motivations for the sake of plot causes characterization and as well as motives to suffer in return.
Stakes and character motivations are tied together, but sometimes writers make the mistake of thinking high stakes has to mean big on a physical level. You don’t need stakes to encompass the whole world, they just need to have strong meaning to the characters. The more personal the stakes the better. Likewise motivations should carry personal elements with meaning to the character. A character chasing after a villain because the villain personally hurt them or someone they know is way more believable than a character chasing after the villain because they were told it’s the right thing to do. Think of this in regards to the stakes. If the villain gets away the character can’t get justice or revenge, but if the character is chasing the villain because it’s the right thing to do, they don’t lose much personally if they fail.
So how to decide a character’s motivations? Figure out what drives them. Is it revenge? Guilt? The desire to protect their loved ones? Next how would they react to the plot and even more importantly, how do their desires drive the plot forward and what gets in their way? Characters should be doing more than just reacting. Make sure motivations are believable and fit the character. If a favorite local bakery is being forced to shut down to make way for a corporation to build on the lot, a health snob who hates sweets might not care, but the bakery regulars would care.
Finally, make sure readers know where the character’s motivations are coming from. Not knowing where motivations stem from not only makes the motivations unclear, but it leaves a big gap in characterization. If a sailor is setting out to defeat a siren who loves hanging out on the local beach, tell us why he is so set on his mission. Did the siren dash some of his friends into the rocks? Where motivations come from is one of the biggest characterization moments in a story. This information sets up a character’s role in a story as well as showing what drives them and why.